A state police intelligence unit with an opaque investigative mandate and access to powerful surveillance tools has operated for years in secrecy and with little outside accountability.

Despite concerns over transparency and the potential for abuse, the unit has been given no real oversight, and worrisome questions about their operations and abilities persist.

That has gone on long enough.

A federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a longtime state trooper this month alleges that the unit has violated the civil rights of Maine residents on a number of occasions. Legislators should demand answers.

The trooper, a 26-year veteran, alleges that the unit – officially the Maine Information and Analysis Center, but also known as a “fusion center” – routinely collected and retained information in a way contrary to policy and law.

Among other allegations, the lawsuit says that the fusion center gathered and maintained personal information on protesters, people who legally purchased firearms and counselors and volunteers at a summer camp. The lawsuit also says the unit illegally used data collected from automated license plate readers in other states in an attempt to identify drug traffickers.

State public safety officials say the claims are false. Legislators must get to the bottom of it.

Created in 2006 as part of the post-9/11 expansion of government intelligence collection, fusion centers were designed to allow federal, state and local agencies to quickly share information on activities related to terrorism.

However, a 2012 U.S. Senate report found the centers had not yielded much useful information, and the information they had collected came at a high cost. The centers often infringed on people’s rights, the report said.

Now they have largely been repurposed to other tasks, using advanced technology built to chase terrorists, with their work mostly behind a curtain.

The fusion center was originally overseen, at least nominally, by a three-member board of advisers, but it rarely met. The board now has 12 members; three are from the state police itself, including two supervisors who are named in the lawsuit. It’s unclear how the board members are chosen or what powers they have.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, who is co-chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says she has struggled to get answers on the unit.

Warren has said her committee will call the commissioner of public safety, Michael Sauschuck, to testify on the allegations as soon as possible. It will be a welcome spotlight.

Earlier this year, a Press Herald report detailed the state police’s record of secrecy regarding surveillance technology such as facial recognition and cellphone signal interception. That secrecy prevents the public from fully knowing how their tax dollars are being spent, and whether their constitutional rights are being protected.

There was no hard evidence then that state police were using the technology irresponsibly, and the lawsuit hasn’t yet produced anything but allegations.

But then again, we don’t know much about what the center does and how it does it. The technology now at its disposal is powerful. That kind of power has been abused elsewhere, and in ways that very much match the allegations in the lawsuit.

That should be more than enough for legislators to now exert their influence over the fusion center. It’s far past that time.


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